Ann Arbor/Community High School/Pinball Pete’s

 

Caroline in a publicly sanctioned graffiti alley between Liberty St. and Washington St. in Ann Arbor.

Caroline in a publicly sanctioned graffiti alley between Liberty St. and Washington St. in Ann Arbor.

 

The relationship between Ann Arbor and Detroit is tough to define.  It’s not a Detroit suburb, and it didn’t grow along with them the post-World War II period when a combination of decreasing job opportunities and virulent racial hatred prompted the flight of Detroit’s white population into the ring of leafy suburbs on the city’s periphery.

Rather than a Detroit suburb, Ann Arbor is either an “outlying focus city,” about 43 miles from urban Detroit, that has its own downtown and, in the massive University of Michigan, its own source of jobs that has kept Ann Arbor economically stable despite the vicissitudes of the auto industry; or Ann Arbor is not part of Metro Detroit at all.  

I once spoke with a Detroiter who compared the relationship between Ann Arbor and Detroit to that of Hartford, CT and New York City, but I think that she was just in the mood to piss me off at the time.

The fact is that if you drive East from Ann Arbor on I-94, you immediately see factories and signs that say “FORD,”GM,” and the like (Chrysler has fallen on even harder times, even though the University of Michigan Wolverines play basketball in Chrysler Arena).  

Drive West, and you see farms.  

Independent though Ann Arbor may be, it is either the end of Metro Detroit or the beginning, the way that The Lord of the Rings both begins and ends in the Shire.

 

The area.

The area.

 

Ann Arbor is famous for its generally bohemian, left-leaning political proclivities.  In the 1950’s, Ann Arbor was one of the first cities in America to pass an open-occupancy law, which restricted the real estate industry from discriminating against non-whites.  And in the 1960’s, Ann Arbor became one of the legendary epicenters of antiwar protest and public marijuana smoking, a tradition which continues today through its annual Hash Bash.

The University of Michigan Diag during the Hash Bash.  When I was there, the whole crowd draped a single, giant canvas tarp over ourselves so that the cops gathered around wouldn't arrest us.  Then, the scattered, and we all got out of there as fast as we could.

The University of Michigan Diag during the Hash Bash. When I was there, the whole crowd draped a single, giant canvas tarp over ourselves so that the cops gathered around wouldn't arrest us. Then, we scattered, and we all got out of there as fast as we could.

If you look outside of the main downtown area, you will find that the some of Ann Arbor’s old-school lefty 60’s traditions are still carried on.  This a mix of people, to be sure: Some are committed idealists, many are simply lost in a cloud of weed smoke so thick it takes a lifetime to inhale, and the majority are a little bit of both.

It’s hard to spend too much time in Ann Arbor without the sense that utopia was once in reach, possibly in the 60’s, and that, even generations later, the better, fairer world that could have been ours after the revolution was lost not in an inexorable historical process with its roots in the deepest origins of the capitalist system–but rather in a petty cheat, a technicality, like the Italian victory in the 2006 World Cup or the Florida recount.

A photographer snapping images of a model in another of Ann Arbor's publicly sanctioned graffiti alleys.

A photographer snapping images of a model in another of Ann Arbor's publicly sanctioned graffiti alleys.

That said, I had an agenda in Ann Arbor, which was to cruise around in the Mustang making my former acquaintances jealous.

I had only received the car by accident, but it still felt pretty amazing to cruise my hometown in a Ford Mustang.  Isn’t that the kind of thing everyone fantasizes about?  

“This’ll show ’em,” is the basic sentiment involved.  “Fuck those people.”

I took the Mustang to Community High School, which is where I went to high school from 1993 to 1997.  In many ways, Community embodies the spirit of Ann Arbor.

The Mustang stands alone in the Community High School parking lot.

The Mustang stands alone in the Community High School parking lot.

Community High is unique because it is a public school, entirely free, but students have to choose to go there instead of one of the two big area schools (Pioneer and Huron) and there is a very limited number of spots available.  Pioneer and Huron have 2,800 and 2,100 students, respectively, whereas CHS has just 400.  

CHS is not for uniquely qualified students, nor is it for uniquely unqualified students; instead, students get in for reasons totally unrelated to academic achievement.  Yet to those who do get in, they are offered a utopian high school experience that almost totally lacks the traditional jock/cheerleader hierarchical social system that makes the typical U.S. high school so miserable for everyone who has to endure it.  Plus, the campus is “open,” which means that students can come and go as they please at any time of the day.

These facts made the question of how Community High enrollment was supposed to work very contentious in the 1990’s.  From its founding in 1972 until that point, the question of who got to go to Community and who didn’t was not considered a big deal simply because not that many students wanted to go there.  Community, the “alternative school” in the Ann Arbor Public Schools system, was simply viewed as too weird by most people for its enrollment policies to constitute much of an issue around Ann Arbor.

The AntiZebra, the anti-mascot of Ann Arbor Community High School.

The AntiZebra, the anti-mascot of Ann Arbor Community High School.

All of that changed in 1991, when Nirvana released “Nevermind.”  From that moment on, “alternative” equaled “cool” in the minds of almost all teenagers anywhere in the country–if not the world–and, thus, the popularity of Community High shot through the roof.

The year that I tried to get in, there was a line of people waiting outside of CHS to register as freshmen.  It became clear that the students would have to wait overnight if they were going to be among the lucky few to get a spot.  There were a lot of students there, but also a lot of parents; my mom forbade me from waiting in line overnight with the other kids, who had begun acting like hooligans the second the sun went down, so I went home and slept comfortably in my bed while she sat around CHS for an entire night trying to stay out of trouble.

The fact that my mom waited in line for me is something that I managed to keep secret while I was an actual student there, so I suppose this posting constitutes something of a confession.

In any case, I owe my Mom a word of thanks for having gone through that for me.  Thanks, Mom.

My Mom, Mary Collins Gallagher (left) and sister Shannon (right) during a cheerful visit to Detroit's most fabulous ruin, Michigan Grand Central Depot, last weekend.

My Mom, Mary Collins Gallagher (left) and sister Shannon (right) during a cheerful visit to Detroit's most fabulous ruin, Michigan Grand Central Depot, last weekend.

That may have been a lot to ask of Mom, but at least she only had to wait one night, and they let her go inside when a typical Michigan March blizzard struck.  

The next year, however, the line went over from overnight to five days.  A friend of mine named Dylan, who was still in eighth grade when I was in ninth grade, could be seen in a tent on the front lawn of Community High during an entire week when he was supposed to be in school; how he and the others got away with that I have no idea.

The year after that, the line was three weeks long.  The weather was bad that year, even by Michigan standards, so there were a lot of RV’s involved.  Community High could easily have been turned into the site of a teeming refugee camp, but, fortunately, they relocated the line to a Board of Education building on the other side of town that year.

It’s unfair, but there was a consensus among students that the incoming class that year was a monstrously freakish crew of weirdoes whose parents had resorted to spending that amount of time in front of a Board of Ed building just because their kids were too insane to handle anyplace else.  CHS has always emphasized self-motivation, especially when it came to encouraging students to design and teach their own classes (I taught a class on “Modernist Film” when I was a sophomore), but the dark side of that is that it’s easy for kids to make themselves invisible and slip through the cracks if that’s what they feel like doing.

I’m on a serious rant about this, more than I’d expected.  But what can I say–it’s where I went to high school.  That’s some deep-seated, emotional shit right there, no matter who you are.

The unexpected verbosity with which I’ve conducted this discussion of Community High also raises a valuable point about my trip to Ann Arbor in general, though.  I had not been to Ann Arbor for three years, a relatively long time considering how, before then, I managed to find a way back at least two or three times a year since my Community High career wrapped up.

 

 

 

When I talk about this with people back East, I like to say that my family is a typical Michigan story.  Michigan has suffered more net population loss of late than any other state in the union (on this score, read this article from the Detroit News), and the five of us (me in New York, my Dad in New Jersey, my Mom in Wisconsin, and my sisters in Chicago) have just gone with the flow. Even in Ann Arbor, long the healthiest town in the state from the dollars perspective, there is very little to do that is not connected to the University of Michigan in some way.

There had been a big Pfizer R & D facility in Ann Arbor, sure; but Dad had worked there and left as a result of the problems at that place, which closed down for good only a year or so after Dad got out.

For our present purposes, what the Detroit News calls Michigan’s “eight-year population exodus” had one particular negative effect: It meant that when I finally got the opportunity to cruise Ann Arbor in my badass (rented) Mustang, there was no one there to see it.

Caroline and I went to Pinball Pete’s, a mecca for teenage ne’er-do-wells and the men who love them since time immemorial.

Pinball Pete's on S. University in Ann Arbor.

Pinball Pete's on S. University in Ann Arbor.

When I was 16, I decided that the time had come to get drug experimentation underway.  I asked the kids at Community High who wore wallet chains where I should go to get it, and they said to go find someone at Pinball Pete’s who was wearing a T-shirt with a marijuana leaf on it.  

My feelings were hurt.  Even then, I knew that no drug dealer would actually wear a shirt with a picture of the drug that they were dealing.  The only reason why a kid who actually knew drug dealers, or perhaps even was one himself, would tell me such a thing was because he had wanted me to talk to a narc and get busted.  The fact that I had been told this meant that the kids with wallet chains at CHS didn’t like me, and from then I would need to work harder on social networking if I was going to insinuate myself into their world.

As my Community High career developed, though, I didn’t have to work that hard.  The bad kids came to me, and eventually other people started to think that I was sort of a bad kid, too.

But that’s one of the things that makes Community High great: kids can actually be cool there and still go to good colleges in the end.

Community High School.  Those massive psychedelic billboards weren't there when I was going there.

Community High School. Those massive psychedelic billboards weren't there when I was going there.

CHS Billboards 2

 

Back then, Pinball Pete’s used to teem with bad kids not just from Ann Arbor, but also a lot from the rural towns to the West of Ann Arbor, where Metropolitan Detroit definitively ends, filled up Pinball Pete’s on weekend nights.  Especially before the cigarette-smoking ban was initiated, it caused traffic backups on S. University that were legendary for the booming-bass hip hop cacophonies that ensued from the hundreds of speaker systems assembled so closely together.

When Caroline and I were there, Pinball Pete’s was all but deserted.  Was I really expecting the same heads who had been there in 1997 to be there today, complete with fat bellies, babies, and subprime mortgages?  

There was one guy from CHS who went to work at Pinball Pete’s after we graduated, and I thought he was the biggest loser of all time, but now he has a degree in business from the London School of Economics.

To see him there, or for that matter anyone over 21, would have been too much to expect.  What I had hoped to see was the kind of raw, nihilistic, self-destructive rage that teenage boys inflict on video games kicking up beeps and grunts from both man and machine throughout Pete’s massive underground space.  But I was disappointed–either the times we live in are too expensive even for misguided rage, or the teenage scene had moved on to a place where they could at least still smoke cigarettes.

"Celebrate Your Event at Pinball Pete's"

"Celebrate Your Event at Pinball Pete's"

Despite the fact that the youth scene had not turned out for Pinball Pete’s on the day of our visit, it still seemed that Caroline and I were too old to enjoy its most vaunted new technologies.  I used to be pretty good at old-school “Street Fighter 2”-style fighting games, and so I beat Caroline when I played her at one, but my strategy only consisted of slamming down all the buttons at once (I had never learned any of the “special moves”).  After Caroline left and went to play skee ball, I tired out my wrists from slamming down all the buttons all the time and the computer beat me handily.

We had a good time playing skee ball, and then we shot baskets on a basketball game that moves the hoop at various distances toward and away from you.  We earned enough tickets from those games to buy a small Connect 4 game that you can attach to your keychain.

Connect 4 game that is small, so you can attach it to your keychain, which Caroline and I obtained for 75 tickets at Pinball Pete's.

Connect 4 game that is small, so you can attach it to your keychain, which Caroline and I obtained for 75 tickets at Pinball Pete's.

After our trip to Pinball Pete’s, I drove Caroline back to the airport and, from there, returned to Detroit.  The strange, totally instinctive nervous reaction to Ann Arbor that I had experienced from my first moment there made me dread Detroit, possibly because the comparison between Ann Arbor and Detroit is so stark: Ann Arbor is the sparkliest, most pristine, cleanest environment that you could ever imagine outside of Switzerland.  The feelings I had as I left that day were familiar: when I had left Ann Arbor for other places, including college, New York, and even the pristine-to-a-fault places in Germany where I’ve lived for some time, I’ve always felt the same way.

Like leaving Ann Arbor is a plunge into total, violent chaos.  Like leaving Ann Arbor is going from a place where flowers are blooming into the middle of a busy street where dozens of animals’ corpses are stinking up a frenzy.  No matter what that place happens to be–at least in this respect, Detroit and New York are interchangeable.

In the end, that’s probably just how your hometown makes you feel.

I’ve also got to say, though, that I was even more sad because Caroline was leaving.  We’d had quite a time, and it made me really happy to be able to show her the unique beauty of Michigan without getting into too much trouble.

So it’s possible that I was going to miss Ann Arbor, but it’s also possible that I was just going to miss Caroline.  In any case, I returned to Detroit that night on a note of melancholy.

Nose

 

 

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~ by electrorefutedrobo on August 27, 2009.

2 Responses to “Ann Arbor/Community High School/Pinball Pete’s”

  1. Living in Chicago now, but have a typical Ann Arbor response. Crisler arena isn’t associated with the Crysler car company. From Wikipedia article: It is named for Herbert O. “Fritz” Crisler, head football coach at Michigan from 1938 to 1947 and athletic director thereafter until his retirement in 1968.

    This is the first post that I’ve read, but curious to read your Detroit observations. It’s a place you really only get to know by living there, though that could probably be said of most places. Unlike most places, most of what we hear out of Detroit is from people that don’t live there, and usually they don’t live there for a reason. Obviously that’s going to color the stories we get about the city.

  2. Oh. Well, I’ve got to say that’s kind of a bummer. Still, the similarity of the name of the arena to that of the failed bloated auto concern is too close to be coincidental.

    Like all things in Southeast Michigan, Crisler Arena’s very name is haunted by the rise and fall of the U.S. auto industry.

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